The courts at Wimbledon are lush and green but absent are the world’s best players, who should be completing the first round of matches today had The Championships not been cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The grass courts were fine when it was cancelled. It is the infrastructure that takes time. It is not a case of saying two weeks out we can play them. There is an 8 to 10-week spell to get it ready. Come early April in the midst of the pandemic it was untenable. Even now with the restrictions in place, it would be impossible to hold them. Neil Stubley, Wimbledon Head Groundsman
A crew of 15 permanent ground staff, headed by Neil Stubley, the Head Groundsman, look after the 18 Championships grass courts and 20 grass practice courts throughout the year, with a team of 28 working on them plus all the planting and trees around the 42-acre site over the period of The Championships.
“It’s the fact that a lot of blood, sweat and tears has gone in to produce the grass courts and we don’t get to showcase them,” Stubley says. “But that disappointment is across the club.
“We are all very proud of the work we do and how well-received it is across the world.”
He defends the decision in April to cancel The Championships even when other sports have returned to action around the world.
“The grass courts were fine when it was cancelled. It is the infrastructure that takes time. It is not a case of saying two weeks out we can play them,” he said.
“There is an 8 to 10-week spell to get it ready. Come early April in the midst of the pandemic it was untenable.
“Even now with the restrictions in place, it would be impossible to hold them.”
Stubley, 51, has been working at Wimbledon since 1995, when he first joined the grounds staff under the watchful of eye of Eddie Seaward, MBE, who was the Head Groundsman from 1990 until 2012 when he retired after the All England Club hosted the Olympic Tennis Event.
During his tenure, Seaward’s influence is credited with having a profound effect on the way tennis was played when, in 2001.
It is said that he decided to use a different kind of turf made from 100%, rather than 70%, perennial rye, but it was, apparently, a team effort.
Tim Henman was frustrated by the change, telling Time magazine: “I was thinking ‘what on earth is going on here? I’m on a grass court and it’s the slowest court I’ve played on this year’.”
Slowing the courts down changed the style of play and the move is attributed to ‘sowing the seeds of Wimbledon’s revival’ in The Times’ article published in April.
Back the 70s and 80s, the courts looked like a yellow massive ’T’ surrounded by varying shades of green during the second week, and, for the men at least, a rally of over 5 shots was something of a novelty.
It was the days of Ilie Nastase, Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, Roscoe Tanner, and Vitas Gerulaitis – all white balls and wooden rackets, while John McEnroe’s infamous ‘You cannot be serious!’ and ‘Chalk dust blew up!’ moments, and the bad bounce punctuated play.
To a significant degree it was the bad bounces which forced players to adopt a serve and volley approach, rather than remain at the back of the court trying to work openings but risk a low bounce ruining all the great lead up work.
Racket technology improved dramatically in the 80s and led to the grass court game becoming dominated by big servers, which resulted in the game being dominated by short rallies and becoming predictable.
A raft of research, surveys and botanical assessments of the courts were carried out, a programme which continues to this day.
“The most important trial was the ‘Grasses for Tennis’ trial which was set up in 1993,” explained Mark Ferguson last year, the Research Manager for The Sports Turf Research Institute in Yorkshire, which has been involved with Wimbledon on an advisory basis since the 1990s.
“What quickly became apparent was that there were better grasses out there which could be used on the courts.
“That wasn’t the fault of anyone as no research had been done prior to that and new breeding technology had only recently brought in new varieties.”
The new cultivars of perennial ryegrass provided a much better surface.
“With the arrival of the new rye grasses the game changed, the courts became much more consistent and players were confident enough to play from the back of courts, which performed a bit more like hard courts, albeit the ball came through much more quickly.” explained Ferguson, who has been STRI’s ‘Mr Wimbledon’ for 14 years.
“The work that has been done on grasses has played a big part in the way the game has been played.”
The current Wimbledon mixture, which is supplied by Limagrain and has been used for the last 11 years, comes from 3 cultivars – Melbourne, Malibu and Venice.
“Breeding has hit a bit of a ceiling, improvements are now more marginal.
“Ryegrasses have become so good now that it is difficult to genetically engineer something which is better.
“There are some coming through and there are some excellent companies out there which have had great success in trials and they are tested at Wimbledon as part of the trial work.”
How the grass plays continues to play is a subject of much debate, and is now a matter of science.
Ferguson and his 4 strong team attend from the week in advance of The Championships each year, taking daily measurements on each court, including practice courts and the qualifying courts at the Bank of England Sports Club, using the Clegg impact hammer to measure surface hardness.
Soil moisture readings, ball bounce, chlorophyll index and live grass cover are also measured.
“To measure live grass cover we go to the same 8 areas on each court, every day and take a count of live grass, that’s 800 spot identifications per court, per day.”
All measurements are processed and made available to Stubley, who directs specific management on Championships and practice courts.
Should a player now question the playing quality of a court, the measurements can prove that surface characteristics are consistent with other courts and other Championships.
“We have readings for every court going back to the 1990s so we can demonstrate objectively how a court is performing compared to previous years.”
The introduction of a roof over both the Centre and No 1 Courts roof has not had any real impact on the day-to-day condition of the surfaces.
“The roof on Centre Court is at the north end so it doesn’t impact in terms of shade, but what the roof does bring is continuous play when the rain comes,” says Ferguson.
“Live TV want play all the time so there is a temptation to overuse the court, and it needs to still be in good condition on Day 13.
“Other courts are brought out of play as the fortnight progresses and there are fewer matches to play.”
Now with No 1 Court roof coming into use in 2019, the Centre Court workload can be managed a little more easily.
The grass is cut to an average height of 8 millimeters on all match courts during The Championships, and is re-lined, rolled and mown daily.
Center court is actually only played on for the 2 week tournament and on the Sunday the day before the tournament starts.
This year life goes on without Championship play, though, and with members are using a reduced capacity of courts.
Stubley says it is surreal to walk around and see his courts not humming with action, but he and his team are getting on with their work, despite the cancellation, because it is a year-round job.
From the start of April, the grass is then taken down a millimetre per week from its winter height of 13mm to its playing height of 8mm, ready for when the courts open to members in mid-May.
The championships may only last two weeks but the courts need to be back open for members just 2 days after the tournament is finished.
“Our primary aim is always to be ready for mid-May which is the opening of the grass courts to our members,” Stubley says.
“Come August, early September it will be the same process – rip the courts up, re-seed them, grow through autumn and winter and the same prep work for the 2021 championships.”
We can’t wait to see them all in action again.